I grew when there was no ADA, no social media, and no role models for young, female wheelchair users. Then in the late ’60s, along came Bette Midler, whose music I’d first discovered on the radio. I immediately bought some of her albums (vinyl records then), but it wasn’t until I saw her in concert that I learned that disability was something I could laugh about.
I’ll never forget it: Bette Midler zipping around the stage in an electric wheelchair, with palm trees rising from the back of the chair and dangling coconuts right where she could caress them. In that wheelchair, she danced, she sang and she told (mostly raunchy) jokes.
Did I mention she was wearing a mermaid costume, with her fin/legs stretched out on the footrests? At one point during a song, Bette Midler slipped out of the wheelchair onto the floor — the zaniest wheelchair transfer I’ve ever seen. She got herself back into the chair, mid-song, without using her legs, err, fin.
Delores De Lago, the Toast of Chicago, aka the mermaid, aka Bette Midler, debuted during the singer’s 1978 world concert tour. When it was over, she wrote a book about the adventure, which she recently re-released.
In “A View From A Broad” (Simon & Schuster), the entertainer describes Delores De Lago as “a woman of tremendous ambition and absolutely no pride at all; a woman of tremendous determination and absolutely no skill; a woman of the grandest notions and not the simplest hint of taste.
“Who else would but a woman like that would dream up an act as a mermaid cavorting about the stage in an electric wheelchair, complete with swaying palms and trick coconuts? … Yes, Delores is a pretty tough cookie. But, then, I have a weakness for tough cookies.”
This from the singer who sometimes opened her show as a patient in a hospital bed, which was not, she wrote, “a cheap and tasteless plea for audience sympathy … but rather a bold foray into the political arena which contained within its small but swollen framework, a thoughtful, even angry cry for socialized medicine.”
Yes it was shtick. Yes, some saw it as offensive. But I thought it was hilarious, and will forever be grateful to Bette Midler for putting a joyously funny disabled mermaid on center stage.